My Hero Beorn

Something I wrote long ago. 

It took me a while, but I finally managed to get through all of Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories”. I say finally because after the first forty pages of the work I could no longer follow Tolkien’s thoughts. This was not because I disagreed with his ideas on Fantasy and Imagination or because I don’t see the escapism evident in The Hobbit. I could no longer concentrate on his later arguments, for my mind just kept turning over and over the ideas in the first half of the essay which discusses the defining, origins of the Fairy-Story. More thoughts began crowding themselves alongside these new ideas until I realized that I found Bilbo more and more unfit as the ultimate hero of the novel. What was even more interesting was that I also realized this was because Tolkien created the character Beorn to serve as Bilbo’s hero. Thus, Beorn takes on the role of the hero of the novel. 

So why isn’t Bilbo the ultimate hero? First off, Bilbo is not human. He is a down scaled version of the average man. In fact, his size is always an issue as he is often referred to as a little rabbit or bunny, and, more importantly his constantly misplaced or overlooked. First in the flight from the goblins and then in the warg clearing Bilbo is abandoned or forgotten by the dwarves. Later, with the aid of the Ring, Bilbo continues to get himself separated from the dwarves, yet these instances of the Spider Fight and the Wood Elves prove him an aid to his friends when they are in need. You would think this growth of character would continue, but upon arriving at the Long Lake, Bilbo is once again just tagging along the group. Finally, at the end of the novel the invisible Bilbo tries to bring peace and end the siege with the Arkenstone. While a noble action that required a fair amount of courage, this deed, much like his random thieving of the gold cup, does not make him the hero of the novel, for he is still simply a member of the group just like he is during his invisible stand with the elves during the battle. Alone, he can do nothing to stop or help win the battle. 

So who then really stands out as an individual and could then be considered, not only Bilbo’s hero, but also the ultimate hero of the novel? Gandalf at first seems to be the obvious choice until his actions are taken into account. Gandalf only serves as a part-time guide to the band. He does manage to save them from the goblins in the caves, yet his power and abilities are limited. He can do nothing but advise during the battle. Even Bard the Dragon-slayer is limited in this final battle and is forced back by the goblin and warg forces. Finally “in the last hour Beorn himself appeared–no one knew how or from where . He came alone, and in bear’s shape: and he seemed to have grown almost to giant-size in his wrath”(Hobbit 302). After lifting the wounded Thorin out of the battle “he returned and scattered the bodyguard, and pulled down Bolg himself and crushed him”(302). By turning the tide of the battle Beorn saves not just Bilbo, but Gandalf, Bard, the dwarves and their allies. He is the ultimate hero. 

As the hero of the novel Beorn then makes The Hobbit a much stronger and fascinating example of Tolkien’s concept of the fairy-story, for Beorn is supernatural. In this land of elves, goblins, men and dwarves, he is an individual who has a “great influence for good or evil over the affairs of man”(Tolkien 4). Beorn, unlike any other creature, except possibly Smaug, fears no one. He lives in the middle of Wilder– or wild–land, which makes for the possibility for adventures “in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches”(Tolkien 9). According to Tolkien such adventures are an important component in the world of Faerie. 

In The Hobbit, however, Beorn does not have any adventures that we are aware of. He, unlike Bilbo, does not need adventures, for Beorn is an adult when we meet him, while Bilbo is still growing through his adventures. This lack of adventures does not change Beorn’s role as the ultimate hero, but rather adds to it immensely. Not only is Beorn a stable, non-changing character, but he has time to “hold communion with other living things”(Tolkien 13). According to the essay this satisfying of a primordial human desire is a accomplished through the workings of the Faerie world. As a farmer, beekeeper, baker, healer and companion to his animals Beorn becomes the master of beasts. The irony of this is that Beorn himself is capable of changing into a great bear. He thus, becomes a beast. While this would seem to place him into the realm of the Beast Fable it instead show us that Beorn is his own master for “he is under no enchantment but his own,” for in theses two forms Beorn is not just a bear mask on a human face, or a human mask on a bear (Hobbit 126). Beorn is an example of “the notion that the life or strength of a man or creature may reside in some other place or thing”(Tolkien 16). Beorn’s super-human strength rests in the furious bear, yet the nurturing gentleness of the bear is found in Beorn the Healer, Baker and Companion to Beasts. Thus, Beorn continues to help highlight Tolkien’s own Faerie world. 

He also acts to simply add color to the story. This occurs when he is seen as simply a hermit living in the wilds. He is known to be “appalling when angry, though he is kind enough if humored”(Hobbit 125). Tolkien creates and uses Beorn as an “unclassifiable individual” that Bilbo just happens to meet during the journey (Tolkien 18). Adding atmosphere and more information to this Faerie world. 

Beorn, however, is not a completely original creation. Tolkien, a scholar of Beowulf, ground Beorn in that very legend. Beorn is actually an Old English dame for men or warriour, and it originally meant bear. The tracing of this legend goes further still with Beorn’s Hall which is modeled after a typical Anglo-Saxon Hall. This does not mean Beorn is a Beowulf, for there are definite differences between the two. What it does mean is that Beorn’s character was created with the English myth in mind. Just as Tolkien states in the essay “Shakespeare’s King Lear is not the same as Layaman’s story in his Brut,” and so we must remember Beorn’s story is different from that of Beowulf (19). 

Just as is Beowulf’s, though, Beorn’s story is a legend. He is a hermit who has few dealings with men. “He never invited people into his house, if he could help it. He had very few friends,” and he seeks no personal wealth. In fact, “he did not appear to care for such things: there were no things of gold or silver in his halls, and few save the knives were made of metal”(Hobbit 137). Never-the-less he guards his ponies (and thus, the dwarves,) he gives aid to the dwarves, and most importantly he turns the tide of the Battle of Five Armies. 

In all of these aspects Beorn actually embodies the three faces of the fairy-story that Tolkien outlines (26). The Mystical is his supernatural strength and abilities. The Magical face is found in his continual communion with nature, while the Mirroring face is found in his avoidance of other races, yet pity for them and salvation of them at the end of the novel. According to the essay these aspects are integral to a fairy-story. In understanding that Beorn is the ultimate hero of Bilbo’s story we are able to see these illustrations and examples of the ideas and concepts Tolkien is writing about when he attempts to define the fairy-story. 

Then why didn’t Tolkien write about Beorn? The two simple reasons for this is that a) he was writing for his children, and a hobbit is much easier to relate to than a very imposing black-bearded man. And b) this is a story of a journey. It is the story of Bilbo’s growth and change, and while the character of Beorn serves to add color to the tale and deepen our understanding of Tolkien’s concept of the fairy-story, he is but a minor character. Even though he is the ultimate hero or savior of the story, it is Bilbo that we are journeying and growing with.

Notice a typo or other issue? Feel free to let me know.